As Hoback leases returned, locals warn against additional leasing


Dan Smitherman, Citizens for the Wyoming Range: (307) 690-1737

Steve Robertson, Hoback Cattle Association: (307) 732-7496

Mike Burd, United Steel Workers of America: Local 13214 : (307) 871-6340

44,000 Acres of Potential Leases Still a Threat to Wyoming Range

As high-profile oil and gas leases in the Hoback Basin are relinquished to the federal government this week, a coalition of Wyoming citizens is warning the Bridger-Teton National Forest to avoid giving away leases in the Wyoming Range so easily again.

The group is asking the Forest Service to cancel 44,700 acres of oil and gas leases located in Horse and Cottonwood Creeks, improperly leased in 2005-2006. Doing so, the group says, will avoid another long drawn-out battle similar to what happened in the Hoback Basin and protect recreational areas important to Wyoming families.

According to Dan Smitherman, the Hoback lease buy-out was a major victory for state and local residents but the actual problem stemmed from a federal government mistake to lease the area for energy exploration in the first place.  Now that the agency has watched the consequences of their actions unfold in the Hoback basin, Smitherman says they have an opportunity to make better decisions this time around. 

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” said Smitherman. “If the Forest Service makes the right decision not to lease today, we can avoid years and years of needless conflict tomorrow.”

Unlike the relinquished Hoback leases, the 44,700 acres of contested leases in Horse and Cottonwood Creeks have never been validated. The leases were originally offered for sale in 2005 and 2006, but a series of challenges by outfitters, sportsmen, former Gov Dave Freudenthal, and labor unions have left them in legal limbo ever since.  In 2011, the Forest Service made a decision to cancel the entire 44,700 acres but when two energy companies appealed, the Forest Service withdrew the decision in order to conduct further analysis.

A new decision is expected sometime later this year.

Not Neighborly:

If the 44,700 acre of leases were validated, at least five energy companies could begin advancing drilling projects in the middle of popular elk hunting camps, grazing allotments, fishing holes and camping areas – similar to what Plains Exploration and Production had proposed for the Hoback.  Already, Stanley Energy, a wildcat outfit out of Colorado has floated a proposal to drill 200 gas wells from 8 well pads, each covering 50 acres.

Steve Robertson, a rancher and vice president of the Hoback Cattle Association says those sorts of developments would ‘not neighbor well’ with the established historic uses in the area.

“It has been long recognized that wildlife habitat, water resources, scenic values, livestock grazing, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation are existing historic uses for this area,” said Robertson speaking on behalf of the Hoback Cattle Association. 

“These historical uses are diminished and challenged by competing and conflicting activities that occur with oil and gas exploration and extraction.  The fact is, activities and infrastructure required for oil and gas exploration and extraction do not fit the natural character of this country and will not neighbor well with existing historic uses,” he said.   

Labor Watching Closely:                              

Mike Burd, a member of the United Steel Workers of America Local 13214 union, which represents hundreds of workers at the trona mines and soda ash plants says if the leases were validated it would spark an even bigger battle than the Hoback.

“Our member’s fish and hunt in these areas even more than the Hoback so we are watching this one closely,” he said.

Burd points out the original attempt to lease North and South Cottonwood Creeks in 2005 caused the Wyoming State AFL-CIO to issue its first formal leasing protest in the history of the organization.  It’s also what galvanized so many outfitters, recreationists, and landowners to advocate successfully for the passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act in 2009.

“We are an extraction state, but there are places we don’t want to drill because of our Wyoming way of life and what we like to do,” said Burd.  “That’s what got us all together to pass the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, and it’s what will get these last leases cancelled for good.”